Nine long years into a war in Afghanistan that two out of three Americans no longer support, a group of disillusioned foreign policy experts is trying to kick-start an overdue national discussion about our goals in the region, and other ways that we might be able to achieve them.
Despite the growing opposition to the war outside the Beltway, there's been remarkably little serious debate about Afghan policy among those with the power to change it.
A new report by the ad hoc Afghanistan Study Group, officially unveiled on Wednesday, aims to change all that.
Flatly declaring what has become increasingly obvious over time -- that our efforts in Afghanistan are not only failing, they are actually counterproductive -- the report provides something that some anti-war activists say has been sorely missing until now: A coherent alternative to the current approach.
The Huffington Post first revealed the Afghanistan Study Group's conclusions in an exclusive story three weeks ago. The group's "Plan B" calls for a dramatic reduction in the American troop presence, a mission refocused on the minimal Al Qaeda threat rather than on trying to defeat the Taliban and a peace process that leads to power-sharing.
But according to the group's director, Matthew P. Hoh, the details of the endgame are not the most essential part of the report. Indeed, at the panel discussion at the New America Foundation Wednesday marking the report's release, there was plenty of debate about its specific conclusions -- even among some of the signatories.
Instead, Hoh said, the report's most important contribution is to lay out a "consensus view" that the current strategy in Afghanistan is not working; that it's actually making things worse; that it's not making us safer; that it's coming at a staggering and wildly disproportionate cost in blood and treasure; and that there needs to be an alternative approach.
"What we're hoping is to build a foundation to support the creation of an alternative strategy," said Hoh, a former State Department political officer in Afghanistan who resigned his post in protest a year ago. "We want to be as inclusive as possible," he said. "We just want to be a foundation for this, that moves the debate forward."
Hoh envisions a three- or four-month process that "taps into that 62 percent of the population that is against the war," and eventually persuades the White House and Congress to establish a formal study group to consider alternatives.
Although the report was 10 months in the making, its timing is in some ways propitious.
Opposition to the war has reached an all-time high of 62 percent, according to a recent CNN poll.
While some Democrats in Congress have been opposed to the war for years, more and more Republicans are turning against it as well.
And I wrote in late July about a congressional hearing at which Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), called for a national debate about the war in Afghanistan. "We need a thoughtful, non-rancorous discussion about the appropriate mission," he said. "What should we be doing? What policy should we be setting? We have not had that conversation."
Across the aisle, Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), spoke about decreasing military spending on the grounds that "most of, or at least very much of what the Defense Department does right now is just pure nation-building... and we simply can't afford it."
Will the report spark a debate? If nothing else, it has inspired a new round of opinion pieces and analyses.
Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote for the Washington Post on Tuesday:
Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus's Afghanistan Taskforce, told me this report is critical, "given Washington's near-silence on alternatives to" the current strategy. Honda and his taskforce colleagues have Katrina vanden Heuvel called for the creation of a congressionally mandated Af-Pak Study Group.
Paul Pillar, a professor at Georgetown University and former CIA analyst who is a member of the study group, wrote in the National Interest:
The report, and the discussions that led to it, are a recognition that U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and much of the discourse concerning that policy have lost sight of what is, or is not, at stake in Afghanistan. The policy and the discourse also have lost sight of any comparison of the costs and benefits of waging a continued counterinsurgency there....
This report, at least as much as calling for changes in trajectory, is calling for changes in thinking about Afghanistan. It is an appeal not to let sheer momentum continue to carry us into expanded objectives, but instead to ponder--not just to recite--why we are in Afghanistan and to consider precisely how what we are doing there does or does not advance U.S. interests.
David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote about the report in his Foreign Policy blog:
It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.
Hoh said that over time, he expects there will be support for an alternative even from within the White House.
"They're looking for a way out. They're looking for a way to end this," he said. "I don't think there's anyone who wants to stay there forever."